A Knives Tale

Right knife keeps chef/cooks on profession’s cutting edge
Story by Tommy C. Simmons
Photos by Richard Alan Hannon
Thursday, August 8, 2002

The Advocate
Food Section

   “Have knives will travel” is an apt motto for chefs and cooks. Knives are the tools of the chef’s trade. Just as carpenters work with their own tools, so too do chefs and serious cooks. A culinary school graduate usually starts out with a basic set of knives: a chef’s knife, boning knife and paring knife, according to David Resch, executive chef at Pavé, a contemporary French Asian bistro on Jefferson Highway.
    The student may or may not have mastered knife skills, but he or she will quickly learn how to properly maintain the knives. Each night, Resch says, before leaving the kitchen, no matter the hour, a cook takes care of his knives. This means cleaning, sharpening, and re-wrapping or packaging the knives so they won’t get chipped, scratched or damaged when taken home. You never leave your knives at work, Resch says.
    Knives are the extension of the cook’s heart and hand and must be tearted with respect, says Michael Jetty, executive chef at Maison Lacour, a classic French restaurant on North Harrell’s Ferry Road.
    Bringing in your own knives is a sure sign of professionalism in a cook or chef. But interestingly, it’s not the brand of knives that counts. Every chef and cook has his or her favorite brand of knives. Some chefs have changes their knife preference over the years. How four Baton Rouge chefs/cooks came to choose their knives is a reflection of how they view their culinary role in the restaurant business.
   Michael Jetty, executive chef at Maison Lacour, was trained in the classical French culinary tradition, where discipline is the key to learning how to cook. His favorite knives are custom-made by a skilled craftsman, Robert Kramer, in Seattle. They are knives that Jetty feels serve as a symbol of his having reached a certain level of achievement in his culinary career.
    Jetty started working in restaurants when he was a student at LSU. His first breakthrough came, he says, when Momma at Gino’s, the owner’s mother who ran the kitchen, didn’t kick him out of the kitchen. He was a waiter there and wanted to learn more about the food and started around in the kitchen to see how the sauces were cooked.
   Later, Jetty went to the back door of John and Jacqueline Greaud’s classical French restaurant, Maison Lacour, on N. Harrell’s Ferry, and asked if he could apprentice under Cordon Bleu-trained Jacqueline Greaud to learn French cooking. The Cordon Bleu method, he says, is based on discipline, discipline, discipline.
   “I learned profound respect for knives. How you treat your knives is important. Its considered to be a reflection of the soul and personality of a chef,” Jetty notes.
   The importance of the knives was reinforced when he worked stages (various preparation stations on the line) at restaurants in New York. Chefs in New York believe that you must keep your knives clean and sharp, that it’s a basic laziness if you don’t and this lack of care will transfer to your cooking, Jetty says.
   Jetty’s personal knives are the handmade carbon steel knives fashioned by Robert Kramer. “I started with Henckels and after a decade in this business, working hard and having good things happen, I decided I wanted better knives. I read about the Kramer knives and contacted him. There is a two-year waiting list. On one of my jobs in New York, a chef let me hold one of his Kramer knives. The chef had a reverence for the knife, and I could understand why,” Jetty says.
   Two years later, Kramer contacted him to talk about his knives. The knives that Kramer made for him are perfectly weighted to his hand, Jetty says. The handles are made of polished hardwoods such as thuya burr, ebony, curly maple and cocobolo.
   “I ordered the knives I use most, a boning knife, Oriental vegetable knife called a usuba knife, a chef’s knife and a paring knife. My favorite is the usuba,” he says.
   The Kramer knives cost about $400 each. The knives are full tang construction, which means the handle wraps around the blade, which extends the full length of the knife.
   “You wouldn’t start with a knife like this,” Jetty says. “You have to earn it by working at your profession, improving your technique and skill.”
   Jetty began his apprenticeship at Maison Lacour in 1991. He has been executive chef at the restaurant, which was founded in 1986, since 1997. In a small restaurant, the chef does everything, Jetty says. “Nothing is made until the order comes in. You have to be very organized. You have to care about the food. You have to respect your knives because they are helping you. I keep the knives clean, sharpened and polished. If I slice a lemon, I pause long enough to wipe off the knife because I know the acidity can discolor the knife.
   Jetty stores the knives in the cardboard sleeves they came in, but is in the process of making poplar wood covers for each knife. “My wife, Eva, who works with me in the restaurant and happens to be John and Jacqueline’s daughter, says I treat the knives like jewelry or eggs, and I do,” Jetty admits.